Why is a child removed?
This answer goes in so many directions, there's no simple response here. Typically in Oklahoma it's neglect, followed by abuse and then the offshoots from that, failure to protect, negligence, babies testing positive for substances at delivery and so on. Teachers, nurses, doctors and folks in those fields are required by law to report suspicion of any of the above. Referrals can be anonymous to the DHS hotline, police can be called, including principals and supervisors as well in the reporting. Once so many referrals are made and/or if the circumstance given is extreme enough, the child(ren)/baby is removed, but not before an extensive and quick process of "telephone".
A game of telephone.
DHS is the mothership and she has many extensions, one being CPS. So upon question of should a child/baby be removed, CPS contacts the the District Attorney (or Assistant DA). The DA/ADA files a motion, goes before the judge and petitions for the removal of the child. The judge either grants or denies the petition and based upon that, the child is/isn't removed. The DA/ADA communicates back with CPS and they move forward. In emergency situations, police make the call to DHS and/or the court, the same procedure follows.
Where the child is coming from?
Was this a home removal, meaning the child is or will soon be removed from their home? Is that "home" their biological family's home, a kinship (family member) home, another foster home? Could it be from the hospital because a mom tested positive for substances and they've decided the baby can't go home (because yes, babies who test positive for drugs go home with their moms every day)? Again depending upon the situation, the answer to all of the above is yes. How that plays out always looks different. Police and DHS can show up at schools and take kids from there, they can go into the actual homes and remove them. Foster parents walk into hospitals, emergency rooms and CPS offices every day and pick up children/babies. Really it can happen anywhere. They come to you with nothing or in some cases, a trash bag of a few items. They come in the morning, noon, and night. There's no rhyme or reason there. Bottom line, they're coming from a place that for whatever reason isn't safe or capable of meeting their basic, bare minimum needs.
Services in the home.
Mentioned earlier, removal is a last resort for many situations. And DHS strongly upholds the policy to keep families together. For so many reasons I won't get into, they first explore the option of in-home services, classes (parenting, anger management, substance abuse etc.) and other means of support to prevent the child(ren) from being removed, taken into custody.
Next they explore kinship (family members) to see if they pass state background checks, if so, the child is placed in that home while home studies and more paper work are completed. In many cases, kinship isn't an option, many can't pass a background check. Again, the basic concept of in-home services is the state making their greatest effort to equip, rehabilitate and support parents while keeping their children in the home.
Once a child is removed and placed in a foster parent's home or local shelter depending upon the child's age, a series of hearings in the court take place. Once the case moves from CPS into DHS in the area of permanency, the foster parents are able and encouraged to participate in hearings, parent visits, family group conferences (I'll explain those in a bit) and any other meeting environment presented. The biological parents are given an ITP (individual treatment plan) that addresses objectives for various areas (substance abuse classes, obtaining/sustaining employment and residence, weekly urine analysis etc.). Basically, the state's plan to assist in reuniting parents with their children. Despite what may seem obvious, DHS seeks reunification in most cases. Placement of a child in the foster home remains unless kinship comes forward, the placement is "blown" (child runs away, child harms others in the home etc.), or the parents complete their ITP. At that point the child is reunified. If the parent doesn't complete their ITP a variety of scenarios play out. The court can grant more chances and extended time for parents to comply, parents can relinquish their parental rights, the case by default moves towards termination (parental rights legally severed), adoption, and sometimes the child is continually moved into other foster homes.
How long will you have them?
I get this question a lot. It's a question I asked with our first baby and I so quickly learned there's no answer and even if you think you have a general time frame, the answer I can best give is that anything can happen. It can be a day or years. Every day you wake up knowing something can change and DHS can come get the child. We have learned to say, we have them today but not for forever.
Parent visits and family group conferences.
Parent visits are arranged by the DHS worker, you can transport the child weekly to the designated meeting place (for us it's a DHS office 30 minutes away) or the state can transport them (usually along with other children) for you. Visits can last from 1-2 hours, 1-2 times a week. I'll also say not every case includes parent visits. Sometimes children are abandoned or bio parents are not permitted to have visitation by the judge. For me this was a sleeper gut punch, I had no idea how sad a DHS lobby could be. Parents trying to engage with their kids, some parents not at all participating. Babies crying, confusion, brokenness, anger. I'll never forget the first time I watched a toddler be pried away from his daddy's arms and by looking you can easily assess the abuse and neglect there, nonetheless that baby didn't want to let go.
Family group conferences are meetings set up by DHS to include all parties involved in the case, DHS caseworkers, supervisors, agency workers, foster parents, biological parents and therapists. I've seen these be peaceful and productive and then I've seen them be hostile and leave you in tears. The goal is unity and working together as a team, knowing all parties involved. (Side note: this is my litmus test for how judgmental and ugly I really am deep down. Truly putting all your chips in and sitting at tables with parents who have neglected, beaten, abandoned, and subjected their children to horrific things. Being for them and coming from a genuine place of respect and support? Some days I get there and other days I don't.)
So are you adopting her?
I get this question a lot. The answer today, is no. There are foster homes that have the title "foster to adopt", these folks are my personal heroes because their heart is all in and on the line. It means that should the case move from the goal being reunification with parents and/or the possibility of kinship being an option for adoption is ruled out, is your home willing to keep the child with you with adoption being the next step? If your home isn't "open" for adoption, then DHS quickly moves to find that home and usually begins that search from day one. For us in this season, we are just a foster home.
Adoption through DHS.
You can adopt children/babies through DHS and there are lists and lists by county. White, female babies tend to be the top request. The older children get, the more problems (medical, social etc.) and race all come into play. I have friends who have fostered, some even fostering sibling groups, and when the parents were unable to comply and/or relinquished their parental rights, they simply moved the file into the adoption extension of the DHS mothership and it moves fairly quickly.
"Aging Out" of the system.
Here's a topic that's not talked about much and honestly, it's a sad addition to the already heart breaking reality of the system. I'll give a scenario here so it's easier to grasp. Max is 6 years old, he's removed for domestic abuse and severe neglect. He's the middle of a sibling group of 5. He's removed at midnight and can't stay in the shelter so he sleeps on a cot in a CPS office until they can shuffle him out the next day. He's separated from his siblings because most homes can't accommodate sibling groups. So he starts acting out and harming the other kids in the home. He's seen so much violence and drug use he begins acting out at school. Foster mom says she can't handle him anymore so he "bounces' (quickly moved without explanation or transition) to another home. This home is only in it for the monthly stipend ($500/month per child from the state to cover needs) so he shares a room and a bed with 5 other foster kids, none of who are being cared for in any way. DHS ends up removing all of those kids for further neglect and he bounces again. His parents are long gone and it's made clear to him he's unwanted, invaluable, and an inconvenience. One day he wakes up and he's 14 years old, living in a group home (state housing for teenagers, usually low income accommodations) and before long he's getting into trouble with the law and ends up in juvenile jail until he can go back to a different group home. At 18, they open the front door and wish him good luck with life. This is called aging out. Most of these kids end up back in jail. Most repeat the behavior that got them removed from the first place (drugs, violence or worse) and a fraction end up becoming the homeless population in society. A dark chapter in this even darker story.
Answers in foster care.
Bottom line, there are no short answers or pretty answers in foster care. And there's also no silly or dumb questions, I would say and hope that any time people are curious, foster parents are willing to give answers to the best of their ability. Every state is different, every case is different and therefore every lens from a foster parent is different.
Why do you do it, I never could.
I'll end with the most common question. Why do it? If at the end of this isn't a rainbow, it isn't adoption and instead an exchange for desperation, grief, and discomfort...then why do you do it? Follow that up with the truth that dwells in all of us, I never could. I can't pick up battered kids from emergency rooms, rebellious teenagers from shelters, or babies trembling from meth withdraws in NICU's. There's nothing heroic or superhuman about it. There's nothing about my calendar, weaknesses, or abilities that differ from anyone else. I yell at my kids, burn dinner, bounce checks and screw it up every single day. Everyone has a different destiny on their life, different capacity, different season to step into someone else's mess. For us, our family in this season with our capacity, this is the way we are choosing to step in. Whether it's a day, month or longer, I believe that love sown in deep doesn't return void. I believe we fight not against flesh and blood but against an enemy seeking to still kill and destroy. And if for a brief moment we can step in and somehow absorb the destruction in His might and pray into hopelessness, then I'm all in. It's the laying down of the reality that we can't do this and it's just too much, because it's true. But I trust in the beautiful exchange that He promises of beauty for ashes, oil of gladness for mourning, and hope for despair. I won't settle for anything less than standing firm and fighting for those who suffer in silence.
How it works, how does this beast work when its passengers are helpless and broken? The tracks that it runs on are shaky but they're the best it can do for now. More and more we get into this, I see the desperate need for the church rise up because the government can't tame her. Foster care logistics are smooth and simple on paper but when that phone rings, papers go out the window and you quickly come to understand you're fighting something bigger than yourself, beyond what you can imagine or handle. I trust Him, I trust what He's doing and how He's moving. I trust Him with her life even though I can't see what's ahead.
How it works is, you trust in the One who is who He says He is and that He will do what He says He will do...and you jump. Because she's worth it, worth it a hundred times over.